Community colleges see online classes as a “cash cow,” charges Rob Jenkins, a professor at Georgia Perimeter College, on Chronicle of Higher Education. Community college leaders have embraced online education with religious fervor, he writes. Nobody argues that they’re consistently better in teaching students or that students are clamoring for them, though parents, full-time workers and military personnel find them convenient. “It’s because colleges can produce online courses much more cheaply while charging roughly the same tuition.”
Critics of the online rush will be branded as heretics, he writes. Yet studies show lower success rates in online courses compared to face-to-face classes. Clearly, online learning has limitations.
Several years ago, his college tried to place an entire associate degree online. But what about public speaking?
Conventional wisdom back then dictated that you couldn’t really teach a speech course online. To whom would the students give their speeches? How would they collectively become engaged as audiences or learn to analyze the speeches of others, as they do in a traditional classroom? I sided with the establishment. Speech, I decided, was just one of those courses that students would have to come to campus to take.
That is, until one of the faculty members in my department took it upon herself to solve the problem, through a combination of strategies that required students to videotape themselves, give speeches in front of church, school, or civic organizations, and observe and evaluate similar speeches by others. Her online public-speaking course became the template not just for our college but for the entire state system.
An online speech course isn’t as good as a face-to-face class, Jenkins writes. But, done well, it’s almost as good — and that’s a godsend for students who can’t attend college in a traditional way.
But that doesn’t mean all students can succeed in online courses.
Teaching at another college some years ago, he proposed testing students to see if they can handle online courses, just as they’re tested to see if they’re ready for college-level math and writing. He was shot down. Online enrollment had to keep growing to balance the budget.
Online enrollments across the country are strong and growing, while success rates stay about the same: abysmal. I attended a session at the “Innovations 2011″ conference a couple of months ago, held in San Diego by the League for Innovation in the Community College, where I learned that some colleges were beginning to experiment with the kinds of controls I recommended. Software companies now market products designed to determine, up front, whether students can handle the workload, the pedagogical approach (heavy on reading), and the technical demands of the online environment, and some of those products have shown promise. That sort of approach just makes a world of sense.
But many colleges won’t do it, because they’re afraid of losing enrollment, Jenkins writes.
I’d like us to be more honest with students. . . . Online courses require a tremendous amount of self-discipline and no small amount of academic ability and technical competence. They’re probably not for everyone, and I think we need to acknowledge as much to students and to ourselves.
Soon, most courses will have an online component. Hybrid courses, combining face-to-face and virtual elements, are the future, he writes. But not everything can be taught well online.